Defining the rural in global society

Posted by Michael Woods, 21 April 2015

I spent a few days last week in Washington, D.C., participating in a workshop organized by the National Academies for the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) on the classification of rural areas. Like many countries, the United States has an unwieldy assortment of different definitions of rural areas, which are used for different statistical purposes or to discern eligibility for different government programmes. Even the best established and most widely used of these classifications have become increasingly problematic over time. The US Census Bureau, for example, defines urban areas as being settlements with a population of more than 2,500 residents, and by default classifies everywhere else as rural. Yet, the the 2,500 threshold is based an assessment made in 1920 that a population of that size was required to support a ‘full range’ of urban functions. Today, the assumptions in this statement need to be thoroughly critiques, not least because service provision tends to be more concentrated than it was in 1920, and because certain key services, such as malls and supermarkets, have moved out of towns to ‘edge city’ locations.

The practical difficulties of using the 2500 population definition have resulted in an alternative classification, produced by the ERS and designating ‘metropolitan’ and ‘non-metropolitan’ areas, becoming widely employed as a proxy for rural areas. Yet, as evidence presented at the workshop shows, the metropolitan/non-metropolitan classification is problematic because the metropolitan areas it identified are so extensive.For instance, not only do metropolitan counties cover nearly half of the US continental land area, but they are also home to more than half of the nation’s ‘rural’ population as defined by the Census Bureau’s classification.

A further motivation for the workshop was that ‘rural’ areas are becoming increasingly integrated into urban areas, with their social, economic and cultural lives looking very much like urban social, economic and cultural features, leading some to question whether the category of ‘rural’ is at all useful anymore. However, this assertion in itself is an unconscious reproduction of discourses of rurality as defined from an urban perspective. This was a point that I made in the presentation that I had been invited to contribute on ‘Defining the Rural in an Age of Metropolitan Society’, but even as I was writing the paper I became increasingly convinced that I was asking (and answering) the wrong question.

It may have made sense in the mid- to late- twentieth century to map how rural areas had been incorporated within the metropolitan fields of various cities, and therefore to identify distance and accessibility as key dimensions underlying relative degrees of rurality. However, the twenty-first century might look very different.

Take, for example, the ‘isolation’ of rural areas, as captured in the ERS’s new map of ‘Frontier and Remote Areas‘, which is based on travel time to urban centres of varying population size. This model presumes that there is a singular and linear relationship between a rural area and its nearest urban centre. However, with internet and cell phone connections, physical isolation is not necessarily the same as social isolation as individuals participate in globalized social networks, nor do rural residents necessarily travel to the nearest larger town to buy consumer goods – not when they can be bought online. This is not to say that all rural areas have equal access to services and resources, but rather that connectedness can no longer be simply measured in traveling time to an urban centre, but needs also to take account of broadband and telecommunications coverage and speed.

Similarly, whilst commuting patterns may still be shaped by the pull of one or more major employment centres, individuals leaving rural areas for education or employment are now heading to a diverse range of destinations for different periods of time, including major cities in the U.S. and overseas, as well as off-shore and remote on-shore energy operations. At the same time, food processing plants in rural small towns are now in  practice recruiting employees from a continental labour market of migrant workers. Moreover, tourists and recreationists are not necessarily visiting from the nearest city, and in-migrants into rural areas may be drawn from anywhere.

Rural areas are also no longer tied to particular franchises of television station in regional media markets, but consume news and entertainment from across the world via the internet, and rural businesses are developing export markets worldwide, not just supplying the local big city. Indeed, in many cases the relationships emerging are rural-to-rural, bypassing cities altogether and challenging the long held assumption in economics that cities function as the driver of economic development for their surrounding rural areas. Moreover, the very way in which we understand life in the countryside, and how we imagine rural areas in our minds, is being globalized as films, television programmes and books are distributed worldwide. As such, the perception of rurality held even by rural residents likely to be as strongly influenced by the hybridized representation of the farm and countryside presented in Disney films or US or UK made television programmes than in any direct experience of living in a rural community.

All in all, therefore, we need to be thinking about rural areas in the twenty-first century not just in relation to the metropolitan society of  regional cities, but also in terms of how they fit within an increasingly globalized economy and society and how they retain a ‘rural’ identity in this expanded context. The result, I suspect, will not be a neat delineation of rural and areas that can be definitively mapped and used to replace current definitions, and neither will it help to overcome the vested interest in particular rural classifications linked to particular funding schemes that makes any wholesale re-definition of categories politically difficult – what one participant in the workshop referred to as the ‘political economy of definitions’ – but it might help us to assess the needs and opportunities of rural areas in a global age.

One thought on “Defining the rural in global society

  1. Michael; your conclusion above is increasingly mine too. Working with Alister Scott at BCU I am now telling him that “periurban” (one of his specialisms) is now everywhere except in the cities themselves whose boundaries need to measured through urban influence (e.g. travel to work) rather than by administrative boundaries. I seem to recall that US likes to use counties as components of SMSAs.


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